It’s like the Chicago Cubs, really: when it comes to the ubiquitously beloved mockumentary sitcom The Office, no amount of die-hard fan loyalty will alleviate the ponderous weight of evidence demonstrating that it simply isn’t good.
I realize that this is a daring, perhaps even self-endangering, claim. (And I’d like to apologize to all the Cubs fans, no doubt, baying for my blood; the analogy is a bit unfair. It was the only comparison I could think of.)
I am not voicing a personal dislike of the show’s style. The mockumentary comedy, in my opinion, is one of the most brilliant storytelling devices to grace the small screen. It’s iconic. The Office, I acknowledge, played no small role in the development and popularization of this genre. I owe The Office a great debt for planting the seeds of my all-time favorite show, Parks and Recreation.
But The Office is a terrible show.
As the COVID-19 pandemic intensified, I searched for a similar feel-good, binge-able show to relieve the anxiety and loneliness. Netflix recommended The Office, and literally everyone I know agreed.
So, I watched it, five whole seasons. I gave it a fair chance. Like a Britney Spears song, I kept coming back to be hit one more time, embracing the toxicity.
Before I began my Office relationship, a friend had told me the best part is Jim and Pam’s romance. It’s not the only time I’ve heard this iconic slow-burn friends-to-lovers story offered in defense.
Most fans are aware that Michael Scott’s caustic narcissism is uncomfortably sad at best and abrasively offensive at worst. Michael Scott, played by the arguably talented Steve Carell, has no social or spiritual life outside of the branch of Dunder Mifflin, a barely surviving paper company, he manages. His desperation to be loved leads him to routinely neglect, misuse, and even harm others. The other characters range from forgettable (Toby, the dull HR rep) to grotesquely exaggerated caricatures of humanity’s failings (Dwight Schrute, the potentially sociopathic salesman).
Most fans are also aware of the glaringly flippant way the show makes fun of racism, sexism, and homophobia, particularly in the early seasons. The show implies that simply being aware of systemic injustice provides a license to mock those who experience injustice and the admittedly inefficient and often ineffective corporate and cultural attempts to correct injustice.
Against all of these acknowledged faults, Office fans offer Jim and Pam—the smart, carefree salesman and the kind, patient receptionist he loves.
But, at the risk of sounding like Dwight Schrute, Jim is the problem.
Jim is apathetic. Though he is clearly smart, charismatic, and empathetic, he is content to continue working at a job that brings him no joy, essentially giving up years of his life for a floundering paper supply company—an entity on the verge of obsolescence in a digital world. His life is cosmically meaningless. And Jim is white, male, and well-liked, which grants him some power. Yet, he stands idly by, tolerating Michael, Dwight, and others’ racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior with a knowing look at the camera. Jim is complicit.
Pam is almost as bad as Jim. She shows promise and passion as an artist. But like Jim, she gives up all her dreams and potential to keep working at Dunder Mifflin with Jim.
A relationship that holds one or both parties back from realizing their full potential to make a difference in the world or experience the greatest joy in living is, by definition, a toxic relationship.
The characterization of Dwight Schrute villainizes those who try. Dwight destructively obsesses over achievement. One of the only principal characters shown to have any interests outside of work—science fiction, martial arts, farming—Dwight pursues these various interests with a brutal, even cruel, intensity. Nobody wants to be that guy.
Arguing that Jim is the one bright light in The Office is the equivalent of some “nice guy” on Twitter replying to an outcry against misogyny with “not all men….” The suggestion that a single anecdotal exception de-legitimizes valid complaints against a harmful systemic issue is both logically unsound and morally unacceptable. Holding on to a corrupt entity for the continued enjoyment of one comfortable and personally beneficial element is the core of how privilege selfishly perpetuates injustice. The core value of The Office is that apathy is cool. Which might not be so terrible if its core joke were not “injustice and the pain of others is funny.”
One could still argue that The Office is satire and, as such, should be allowed to push boundaries. A small dose of slightly uncomfortable humor, consumed one episode at a time, might sharpen our perspective, like digitalis, a botanical toxin used to treat heart failure. Perhaps, as in Agatha Christie novels, the poison is in the dose.
But The Office is a binge, the backbone of streaming services everywhere. As you watch episode after episode, you are desensitized to Michael’s discomfort and loneliness. You feel no empathy. You are eventually amused by racism. Because it is self-aware? The Office becomes a bubble where you are exempt from the emotional work of caring about people who are not you. Prolonged exposure to The Office and our excuses for it will poison us at the time when bleeding hearts and discontent rebels against the corrupt status quo are most needed. The Office sucks the life right out of us like a corporate fluorescent light.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.